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Churchill's Private War: British Intervention in South Russia, 1919

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Whippet Tanks

Whippet Tanks



British Naval Flotilla on the Dvina River in North Russia

British Naval Flotilla on the Dvina River in North Russia

The British Send Massive Military Aid

 In South Russia and the Ukraine, the British were heavily committed to support the White Volunteer Army under General Denikin. Churchill was totally convinced with massive military support, the White forces could stamp out the virus he call Bolshevism (the birth of communism). America, after the mess of the North Russia caper, which the British got them into, refused to become more involved and said no about South Russia. France provided only token support until they were run out of Odessa. The general public in the UK had no clue about the British Military Mission in South Russia, at least not very often. Churchill did have a noble idea-to crush communism at its birth, however, even with massive military aid, the White Army only managed to advance to within 200 miles of Moscow from the south through Kursk and Orel. The highpoint might be when British tanks and crews liberated the town of Tsaritsyn, or in WW2, Stalingrad, along the Volga. More ironic is that Stalin was a young comminsar in charge of holding the town in 1919!

The influx of military supplies helped the British get rid of huge amounts of overstocked war supplies left over from WW1. Many of the supplies were in the form of a grant, unlike from the French, who demanded payment before the supplies were given out.

But even the large amounts of supplies the British sent gratis never made it to the troops at the front. Plunder­ing was so common in Denikin’s rear depots that he issued a penalty of death for anyone caught stealing from them. Many times, even when the supplies did reach the front, they mysteriously disappeared or were not distributed.

The British sent some 558 artillery guns, 1,685,522 artillery shells, 160 million rifle cartridges and 250 com­plete uniform sets. Not everything sent by either the British or French was in perfect shape or arrived in its original manner.

General Holman (a main advocate for providing aid in the British Mission) noted in his July,1919, report the following:


“Guns, Machine Guns and Lewis guns were deficient of spare parts and of buffer and lubricating oil, shortage of belts and drums. A great quantity of supplies needed at the front remains lying in the storehouses at the base and at depots. The effect on the frontline troops is disillusionment and loss of faith in our material and our efficacy of assistance. Enemy agents quickly spread propaganda that we were supplying defective and worn out articles at exorbitant prices. The fault is partly on the Russian Administrative services which are incompetent and partly ourselves because we do not have the staff to guarantee correct distribution. In Ekaterinodar, I visited an ordinance depot which had received 4400 complete sets of clothing and equipment (for 4400 men), out of which, not one has been issued according their books. However, these had been broken up piecemeal handouts. The entrenching tool was separated and not one was found. The books show that 150,000 sets of British uniforms were issued, however, I have yet to see a single soldier with a complete set of uniform. I have found large quantities of medical supplies and equipment for battalions which have been lying there for months.”


Of all the reports submitted to the War Cabinet concerning South Russia by various members of the British Military Mission, General Holman’s reports were keen and insightful. Unlike others, Holman literally traveled all over the Ukraine to see for himself the situation at hand. His job and the British Mission was to ensure the delivery of British war material to Denikin’s fighting troops.

In Holman’s report he continues:


“the units operating along the Taganrog to Kharkov railway are completely equipped with British weapons and uniforms, but the front is 600 miles long and much of our supplies are not being delivered. It was not until I visited other areas of the front did I realize that none of the supplies are getting through. Even the elite units of the Volunteer Army, com­posed of all officers were in rags and without boots.”


Holman, who took over the duties of the Mission, eventually had 283 British Officers and 1200 other ranks, not including the air or tank detachments. Holman was blunt with Denikin about the problems and conceded he would try to correct the matter.

As Holman found out by visiting the front, the British artillery sent were only used to 25% of it’s effectiveness. This was because the guns were sent to crews with little training and had no spare parts. Minor problems or repairs put the guns out of use because the spare parts were at a depot miles away. The 36 batteries of the Volunteer army were spread out along 200 miles of front and no lateral communications, some 60 hours away from the nearest rail.


The actual number of artillery guns sent by August, 1919 was:

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331 18 Pdr (450 were promised)

4.5 Howitzer (120 were promised)

60 Pdr.

6” Howitzer

8” Howitzer


However, because of expansion in Denikin’s army, he needed guns for (31) 18 Pdr. Batteries and (27) 4.5” Howitzer batteries. Thus, Holman requested another (150) 18 Pdr and (120) 4.5” guns.


Holman noted that the ammunition requirements for artillery under Denikin’s armies was hard to calculate. The needs were not based on the actual state of the artillery guns or the operations, and in reality, no one in the Russian army knew what the requirements were. According to Holman, the Ordnance section of the British Mission stated the following numbers had been issued to the Russians by August, 1919:


18 Pdr guns                                    ...1,338, 540 rounds

4.5 “Howitzer...                                 203, 783 rounds

60 Pdr guns                                    ...91, 277 rounds

6 “Howitzer                                   ...34,540 rounds

8” Howitzer                                   ...8, 412 rounds


As with the Vickers machine gun and Lewis guns, this proved to be more satisfactory. The training in their use was easier since it was handled at the Corps level. However, the Russian depots were issuing such weapons to anyone requesting them, whether they had been trained or not. In one case, a Terek Cossack division received 36 Lewis Guns even though nobody had even seen one before! The reason why the unit had received them was due to a complaint from the Ata­man of the Terek Cossacks stating they were being “neglected”. To prevent such poor distribution, all MG’s and Lewis guns were issued by British soldiers in Rostov to Russian units. Units that required training went through the Russian Cen­tral Training School which could produce a completely outfitted MG company. This British mission trained some 5,825 men in the use of MG and Lewis Guns by September, 1919. The number of guns issued by September was:


Vickers MG                       ....1,270                      

Lewis Guns                        ....2,743


Once the Russians were trained in their use, British officers accompanied the units to the front, acting as advi­sors in combat operations, and at times, becoming involved. Their presence alone, according to Holman, greatly increased the morale of the Russian soldiers.


As the front increased in size, additional Machine Gun schools were created at Kiev, Tsaritsyn, Kharkov, Anapa and Odessa.

The British sent to Denikin:


200,000 British.303 rifles,

174,872 Russian Rifles

40,000    SMLE/Ross



The following ammunition had also been sent and distributed:


British.303                                     ...180,000,000 rounds

Armor Piercing...                           90,000 rounds

Russian ammo                               ...221, 697,000 rounds

Mauser ammo                                ...22, 457,000 rounds


Holman requested an additional 200,000,000 rounds of.303 ammo and another 300,000,000 rounds of Russian ammo for the coming Winter campaign of 1919.


In charge of developing the South Russian Air Force was Lt. Col. Maund, who arrived on March 20th at Ekat­erinodar. He began to lay the ground work for the 100 RE 8 airplanes and 12 officers and 70 men which would arrive in May, 1919. Once the aircraft and men arrived, the development and training began in June.

The Russians, of course, were not new to flying, and their 62ndWing supplemented the 100 RE 8’s. In April, some 15 Camels and 6 DH9 bombers arrived. These were old and arrived from Mudros and Malta with very incomplete equipment. Some training began and four 4 plane batteries were created and by June, these were operating on the front.

By September, the 2nd Aviation division was ready. Squadron 1 of the 1stDivision was based at Ekaterinodar and Kiev.


By August, the following British airplanes had been issued to the Russians under Denikin:

36 RE-8                

21 DH9 bomber

       21 Camels                  

9 DH9A bomber


Total: 87 planes

Aircraft sitting at Novorossisk, not issued:

64 RE8                 

11 DH9 (need parts)                                 

6 SE5                    


Grand total of airplanes: 168


When Wrangel seized Tsaritsyn, a Volga Flotilla was created. Its purpose was to defend and harass the Reds at Saratov and Astrakhan. This small force consisted of:


Four motor boats armed with 1 MG and 1 37mm.

Two motor boats armed with 1 37mm, 1 17mm and 1 MG.

Four mortar boats armed with 1 47mm, 4 MGs

Four motor boats armed with 1 37mm, 4 MGs.


To supply the numerous armor trains in use under Denikin, the British provided the following naval guns for the trains’ armament. These were actually guns taken off the various interned Russian Naval ships lying about on the Black sea and Caspian.


Eleven 6” guns with 3777 rounds

Thirty 12 pdr guns with 15,959 rounds

Sixteen 6pdr guns with 9,886 rounds

Sixteen 3 pdr guns with 8000 rounds


To say the Capitalists were the only ones making money is untrue. The Locals and foreigners all fed upon one another like barracudas. Even Holman, in his report, takes notice:


“The trains are loaded with a human freight of speculators.....workman leave their work for days to travel the country buying flour which they sell in their home towns for a profit of 500%. In Kiev, a pound of beef costs 180 roubles. Foreign competition exists between the Americans, Italians, Slovak and Poles. It is Russia that Britain can look for markets amounting to 180,000, 000 pounds a year. The British firms travel to Rostov and Kharkov to sell their business up to a 30% profit. The train operators receive low pay and are neutral in their duties and subject to corruption. The rail situation is seri­ous. The cargo cars carry only 10% of military supplies and 90% unnecessary human freight. Because of a lack of system and control, railway employees trade rather than doing their duty.  

The railways of South Russia are in a state of decay, many locomotives are in decrepit condition and it is not unusual for an engine to halt for 30 minutes in order to build up steam. Coal is very difficult to obtain, many run on logs or wood. The train stations gather literally thousands of peasants, most have a diet of bread, melons and sunflower seeds. When the train begins to move, there is wild dash to secure places and it will leave will all cars full to suffocation and hun­dreds clinging to the roof, buffers and running boards. “


The monetary problem occurred due to the descent of the rouble. In January, 1919, one pound equaled 26 rou­bles. This was an artificially allowed fixed rate of exchange. However, in Moscow, the rate was 42 roubles to a pound. In reality, it should have been 80 roubles to a pound. Compounding this problem was the fact that country three to four variet­ies of roubles including German imitations of the Romanov rouble existed. Various districts, likewise, created their own rouble. By July, 1919, the exchange rate had skyrocketed to 200 roubles to one pound. By October, it was 400 roubles to a pound. In Rostov, it was 700 roubles to a pound.


One of the least known aspects of the Civil war was the Jewish question. General Holman addresses this by stating that in England, it was believed that Denikin was allowing the mass executions of the Jews. Yet, in Russia, many thought Denikin had been “bought” by the Jew.

Holman points out that a large number of the Bolsheviks were actually Jewish. One of their top leaders, Trotski, had the birth name of Braunstein. Most of the generals in the Red armies were Jewish by origin. Oddly, it was the Jewish owned newspapers, which were always hostile to Denikin and his army, yet, when his forces entered an area the mass executions stopped. Holman states the following, “it was almost exclusively Jewish brains and money, which turned the amiable anarchy of the original revolution into this terrible war of annihilation”.


The first British tank detachment commanded by Major McMickering, 10 officers and 55 enlisted men arrived on April 13th, 1919 (Russian sources indicate March 22, 1919). Also arriving with them were six Whippet, type A, and six Mark V tanks. The tanks were unloaded from the steamships, “Sacred Heart” onto the wharfs and took a week to prepare. In the following week, the tanks were paraded (at the requested of Denikin) through the town of Novorossisk. The locals were in awe. For demostrating purposes, the Mk V tanks moved through brick walls and climbed nearby hills. The Mk V was called “Ricardo” by the Reds. Each had one six pdr.gun and 4-5 machine guns. The training began on the 22ndin Eka­terinodar. The Russian crews were all officers and each man was crossed trained in tank operations. The official tank school opened in June, at Taganrog. Originally, the British intended a tank crew to be trained within six months but necessity demanded training be reduced to one month. On April 14th (Russian sources) General Denikin issued Order #674, autho­rizing the creation of the 1st White Russian Tank battalion. This order would create four tank groups:

Group One (three MkV), Group Two (two Mk V), Group Three (two Whippet) and Group Four (three Whip­pet), two tanks for training. Each group also had one American Colt tractor, one tank workshop with three-ton Thorneycroft trucks, a few motorcycles and three Ford cars.

The British Tank School would produce 200 cross-trained tankers, which was enough to man 15 tanks by November.The training was rushed because the tanks were needed on the Poltava front by May 8th.



The newly trained Russian tankers would make their debut in supporting an infantry attack. For this action, the 1st Tank group with three Mk Vs were loaded onto four railroad cars, for the soldiers and officers, another two rail cars were loaded, and for tank supplies and fuel, another two rail cars were loaded. Thus, a tank group usually had 8-10 rail cars in the tank support train. This unit arrived near the front and a plan of attack was determined. The opposing forces were equal in terms of strength. When the tanks appeared hundreds of yards away, many of the Red infantry simply fled. Others, armed with machine guns, fired continuously. The bullets simply bounced off the armor. The tanks fired their guns and MGs. Soon, the whole Red force began to panic and flee. When the tank group reached a hill crest Red artillery fired. Shells landed close by but missed. The Red artillerymen realizing that even their fire was ineffective abandoned their guns. The rail station was seized.


On June 16th, the 2nd and 4th tank sections were sent to General Wrangel from Taganrog to his positions near Tsaritsyn (Stalingrad, now Volgograd). These sections were supplemented by one Whippet and one Mk V from Ekaterinodar. Four tanks would actually be used in the battle to breakthrough to Tsaritsyn: 2 Whippets from 4th Section, 1 MkV from 2nd Section and 1 MkV from Ekaterinodar (manned with an all British crew) commanded by Captain Walsh. The two remaining tanks developed mechanical problems and could not be used.


The Reds had built up the surrounding Tsaritsyn area with rows of trenches and wire. It had the rare look of a WW1 battlefield. The Reds also had massed their artillery and MG units.


The offensive was directed against the front southwest of the city. The tanks approached during the night at intervals of 100-150 paces and before dawn had destroyed much of the wire by crushing and dragging a grapnel by the Brit­ish manned tank. The Red artillery began their barrages at dawn and heavily shelled the tanks to no effect. Their own shells fell on their own men who remained in their trenches! This penetration was in the center of the line and once again, the Reds panicked. The Mark V’s pursued towards the town, while the Whippets routed other Reds in their trenches. By 1700 hours, the tanks rallied at Voroponovo Station and moved in force towards the town from the south in order to help Wran­gel’s right flank hold (which was under strong pressure). The tanks and the few ships of the Volga Flotilla combined their artillery fire on the Reds which retreated into the town.